A Comparison of Mass Movements in Hindu Villages:
Bahá'í and Christian

By Susan Maneck

First presented at the Irfan Colloquia Session #15
Bahá'í National Center: Wilmette, Illinois, USA
August 9–10, 1997
(see list of papers from #15)

    Most studies of mass movements in India have dealt with the conversion of tribal peoples or untouchables to one of the great literate traditions: either Christianity, Islam, Hinduism (the Sanskritized tradition), or Buddhism. Conversion in the case of tribal peoples is similar to those of other non-literate cultures.

    Non-literate cultures tend to take a pragmatic approach to religion and are willing to utilize whatever forms appear most effective. Where other peoples appear especially powerful non-literates will readily accept their religious forms in order to obtain the power it is perceived to have. New forms are readily adopted and old, dysfunctional ones fade as the situation demands. Change occurs often, yet imperceptibly, since there are no written records to confirm that such a change has taken place. However once a literate tradition is accepted boundaries become clearly defined. While non-literate peoples may readily convert to the literate tradition, movement away from it appears more difficult.

    Untouchables represent largely non-literate persons with a marginal position within the literate tradition of Hinduism. While excluded from access to the most important Hindu texts, they are none the less essential to village Hindu life, as distinct from the tribal peoples who generally inhabit separate areas. Untouchables organize themselves in patterns similar to other Hindus especially in terms of their corporate identity. Conversion in these cases represents a dissatisfaction with the status conferred upon them by higher caste Hindus and an attempt to raise that status by adopting a new identity.

    This particular study focuses on conversions within the Hindu village culture, particularly among caste Hindus, in order to determine what factors are involved in conversion movements occurring from one literate tradition to another. Substantial conversions among caste Hindus have been exceedingly rare, but I will utilize two cases for comparative analysis. The first was a movement among Sudra to Protestant Christianity which began in Andhra Pradesh around 1906 and ended around the time of Independence in 1947. A more impressive movement has occurred more recently in Malwa among caste Hindus who have embraced the Bahá'í Faith in the 1960s and 70s. I will examine the various groups involved in the conversion movements to determine what factors inclined them to convert. I will also examine the similarities and differences of approach utilized by Christians and Bahá'ís in each context. Finally, I will investigate the particular manner in which village converts perceived the message of each respective religion.

    Four factors seem to be involved in the conversion of persons from one literate religious tradition to another. The first involves the investment persons or groups have in their present status within the caste system. Lower caste often see conversion as a means of raising their caste status while higher castes may be concerned with maintaining the status quo. The second factor, closely related, is the accessibility of persons or groups to the written scriptures. Those with no or limited accessibility are more likely to deviate from the written norm and at the same time be more attracted to another tradition which will give them such access. In this both the Bahá'ís and the Christians succeeded equally. The third factor involves the flexibility of the system from which conversion is occurring and its ability to tolerate such changes. In Hinduism this is fairly high while in Christianity and Islam it remains low. While converts from Hinduism might be easily obtained they are, for this same reason, difficult to consolidate. The fourth factor which proved particularly important in this study, is the flexibility of the religion to which conversion is occurring. This involves the ability of the new religion to affirm the religious heritage of the old one. The Bahá'í Faith is better able to do this than Christianity with the result that whereas Christianity has been accepted only among the disaffected within Hindu villages, the Bahá'í Faith succeeded in reaching all strata. Yet here too, what makes for widespread acceptance hinders consolidation.

    Susan Maneck is an assistant professor (World Civilizations, World Religions, the History of Islam, the History of the Modern Middle East, Women and Religion, and the History and Religion of India) at Berry College in Rome, Georgia. She received a A.B. in Religious Studies from the University of California at Santa Cruz, and an M.A. in Oriental Studies and a Ph.D. in Asian History and European History from the University of Arizona. She has published a variety of articles and made numerous presentations in her fields of study at meetings of the American Academy of Religion, the Association for Bahá'í Studies, the Middle East Studies Association, and other events.

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